Texas Travel

City Spotlight: San Marcos

By Patrick Reardon 4.4.24

San Marcos sits on I-35, about 30 miles south of Austin and 50 miles northeast of San Antonio. San Marcos has been the county seat of Hays County since 1848, but archaeological finds have suggested that humans may have inhabited the area for more than 10,000 years.

These days, San Marcos is a hot spot for Texas State University students to enjoy music, barbecue, and more — but to fully appreciate the city’s rich history, you’ve got to start at the beginning.

How San Marcos Sprung Up

San Marcos gets its name from the San Marcos Springs, which pump millions of gallons of clear, cool water in the northern part of town every day — and have done so every day for millennia. As one of the largest collections of springs in Texas, it’s been a popular watering hole for Indigenous people throughout recorded history. In fact, archaeologists have suggested that the San Marcos Springs are the reason the area is one of the longest continually inhabited areas in North America.

The San Marcos Springs are the source of the San Marcos River, which runs through the modern-day town. When English settlers first moved into the area in the late 1840s, they built a dam on the river to power their growing milling industry, which — along with cotton and cattle — would fuel the town’s economy throughout the Civil War.

Seeing the Springs

Today, the San Marcos Springs and its surrounding natural area are highly protected, as they’re home to five endangered species. Visitors are still welcome to explore the area, though, making Spring Lake Natural Area a little-known gem for outdoorsy Texans.

There are more than six miles of trails here, creating a beautiful hike through undisturbed paths lined with live oak, Spanish moss, and open meadows. The crystal-blue waters of Spring Lake are also a stunning spot off the beaten path for snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding.

Photo by Larry D. Moore

What Else Is Cooking in San Marcos

With more than 150 years of development, there’s plenty to do and see in San Marcos proper. One of your first stops should be the Cheatham Street Warehouse, a honky-tonk that sits along the railroad tracks in west San Marcos. Since the venue opened its doors in 1974, scores of Texas music legends like George Strait, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt have graced its stage. Country musicians — both rising and bona fide stars — continue to headline there to this day.

Another unique attraction is the Wonder World Cave & Adventure Park, a “natural theme park” that’s been around since 1903. The Wonder Cave is an “earthquake cave,” meaning it was created by an earthquake rather than erosion, which forms most caves. Although the primary attraction for families is a guided tour of the Wonder Cave, the park has since expanded to also offer train rides, a petting zoo, an arcade, and even an anti-gravity room.

Like any great Texan city, San Marcos is also home to several chart-topping barbecue joints. Hays Co. Bar-B-Que smokes brisket and jalapeño-cheddar sausages that have kept it on Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list since 2013. And if you don’t fill up there, hop across the highway to San Marcos BBQ for a full menu of lip-smacking pork, brisket, chicken, and turkey — but their hatch gouda sausage is what truly keeps Texans flocking back to San Marcos.

If you’re hungry for more barbecue recommendations, look no further than Lockhart, “the barbecue capital of Texas.”

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